"Forever More: A Love Story from the Edge of Eternity."
Read an excerpt below:
As passings go, he told me his was a good one. When they found his body, there was a slight smile upon his face as if he were happily dreaming in his favorite armchair. It wasn’t long after his earthly remains had been dispatched to the cemetery, that his spirit started showing up in my life. And while I know it sounds odd that anyone could fall in love with a dead man, I have to tell you that his energy was more alive than anyone I’ve ever known in physical form.
He often appeared to me dressed in the dapper style of the forties, which he told me was the best time of his former life. He’d wear a crisp white shirt tucked into the trim waist of his wide-leg pants, held up by a pair of suspenders. His hair was gleaming black and slicked back in unruly waves he would calm with a hand whenever he was trying to concentrate.
In the beginning, I thought he had come to me for help to heal the hearts of his daughter and granddaughter. Though that was part of it, he also saved my life and led me to finally understand what it felt like to be truly known and exquisitely loved. His presence helped to unfold in me an astounding late-life blossoming of which I couldn’t have dreamt. Much later, when I was an old woman, I realized it was all of that and so much more. My name is Rebecca St. Claire, and this is my story of Sebastian.
Everything was ending the first day I saw him. It was the last day of school and the kids in my second grade class were especially unruly. I didn’t blame them; I, too, was anxious to slip into the summer, set free from the relentless ticking of the big round clock that pushed me through my days, staring down from over the blackboard in the back of the room. I didn’t have the resources in those final hours of the school year to deal with the chaos typically created by my high-spirited students. Ever since the chemotherapy, I tired much more easily and because of that I felt, from somewhere deep within, that I had not been lucky this round. Or perhaps it was that I didn’t believe in luck anymore.
Maddy, a dark-eyed seven-year-old and a favorite of mine though I tried not to have them, had raised her hand and uttered the words every teacher dreads, “I think I’m going to be sick.” And then she was, vomiting all over the picture book on her desk, which she had just taken out at my request so that I could collect them. I knew from my nearly thirty years of teaching that elementary students do not take well to the public emission of bodily fluids and mayhem erupted, cued by her cry of dismay. Some of the vomit had projected onto the back and hair of Celene, the little girl who sat in front of Maddy. Feeling the wetness, Celene started crying too and suddenly the whole class was reacting, with a few of the boys especially delighted by the unexpected diversion from our task-bound march toward summer vacation. In my post-chemo state, I was more vulnerable to smells and nearly sick myself at the acrid scent. But an elementary school teacher must remain calm during catastrophes large and small, so I began to restore order to my room.
“Maddy, it’s going to be OK,” I said, dabbing at her with the paper towel I always kept folded in my pocket for such events. I pointed to the little bathroom in the back of the classroom. “Go wash yourself off. I’ll clean this up while you’re gone.” I gave the sniffling little girl a gentle push to get her moving and then turned to Celene. I wiped the tears from her sweet face and gave her a hug before returning my attention to the smelly mess, trying to breathe through my mouth so as not to make it worse.
It was then I had the unmistakable feeling there was another adult in the room. I thought perhaps someone had walked in while I was occupied with Maddy’s upheaval, but I hadn’t heard the door open. When I turned to see who was there, all I saw was a soft flash of light out of the corner of my eye, like a firefly blink. For a few seconds, I had the oddest sensation, as if someone was watching over the scene with amused sympathy. Then the moment passed and I went back to work, calming everyone and cleaning vomit.
Thankfully, the mess was wiped up quickly. An opened window and a couple squirts of air freshener made the room as good as new. My inclusion class, comprised of students of varying abilities, from high achievers to several special needs children with mental or physical disabilities, settled down and began gathering their things, preparing for the final moments of the last day of school. I shook my head to clear it and focused on ushering my young charges out the door. As I did so, I noticed Charlie, one of my students diagnosed with autism, sitting at his desk in the back of the room, staring at something and smiling. I was struck by how beautiful he looked, his auburn curls bobbing as he nodded his head in excitement. I hadn’t seen him respond so enthusiastically to much of anything the entire year. His blue eyes were shining and engaged.
Charlie never spoke. He usually had an aide at his side to help him navigate his schoolwork, and she used a special notebook full of symbols, pictures, and words to help him stay calm and focused. I’d never even heard him make a noise beyond grunting, and often he would just sit at his desk and snap the green rubber band he wore on his wrist, an action that seemed to soothe him. Typically, his aide would try to gently turn him towards whatever activity the rest of the class was pursuing, but she had left the room to bring some of his paperwork to the main office, and he was alone.
Charlie laughed in delight, watching the spot where I’d seen the flash. I squinted at a barely perceptible shape of rippling energy. Though I was intimately familiar with people who believed that spirits and ghosts appeared out of nowhere, I was startled by what seemed to be an opaque human form standing near the boy’s desk and even more shocked by Charlie’s response. My young student was speaking quietly, his lips moving quickly while the human-like form seemed to listen and nod. Then, it lifted a hand and tenderly patted Charlie’s shoulder before disappearing.
Charlie blinked several times and then began to cry softly, as if begging the apparition to return. I was about to comfort him when his aide hurried back into the room, eyes wide at the sight of his anguish. She quickly got out his notebook and flipped to images she knew would calm him. She pointed to a photo of children on the playground, which he especially liked, and talked to him quietly, saying the same soothing words over and over. “The playground is fun, Charlie. We’re going to the playground today.” Her words slowly lured his attention away from the unexpected visitor she hadn’t seen.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Charlie was special in the purest sense of the word, and I felt very connected to him, so his pain hurt my heart. As I saw him snapping the rubber band on his wrist, I knew he had begun the process of self-comfort. I turned my attention to the rest of the class and our last goodbye. I would miss them all, especially Charlie, but in the past decades of my career, I had always been comforted knowing I would be able to watch them grow as they moved through the grades of my elementary school. They would be other teachers’ students, but I felt a part of them would always belong to me, even the most challenging among them. The end-of-the-year had been easier when I knew I would be there for them if they needed me, but these last months had proved to me that no one is promised tomorrow. As I said goodbye to each of my students, hugging them one by one and whispering words of encouragement into their ears, I knew I might never see any of them again.
When Charlie’s aide walked him to the door, I thanked her for her care and hard work helping him adapt in my class. Then I knelt down to eye level with Charlie. He looked away, but I spoke as if he were looking right at me. “It was a pleasure to have you in my class this year, Charlie. You are a wonderful young man, and you helped me teach the children that while our differences make us unique, we share much in common. I just wanted to thank you for that. I hope you have a wonderful life.”
He looked over my shoulder at the spot where the apparition had appeared. A corner of his mouth turned up in a shadow of a smile. Our eyes met for an instant, and I saw a moment of clarity within his before they went blank once more. I was staring at him in surprise when his aide leaned over and said, “Come on, Charlie. Your mom is waiting.”
They were the last to leave my room. I watched them walk away, suddenly aware that the preceding moments might have been my last as a teacher. I closed the door and leaned upon it to survey my empty classroom.
I could still feel the noisy imprint of each child’s energy as silence seeped into my room. I shut my eyes and let it wash over me as I did every year. “I wish them happiness and peace,” I whispered in a sort of prayer, in case there was some great and powerful being out there in the stratosphere watching over all children, but I wasn’t hopeful. They were urban kids from poor neighborhoods, some challenged with physical, mental, and emotional difficulties. If there was a God, he apparently didn’t think being poor was hardship enough. I was certain that prayers alone couldn’t keep my students safe, but there was never anything more that I could do than teach them as best I could and then send them on their way in the hope that somebody out there was watching over them.
As I looked around the empty room, I wondered about Charlie’s visitor. I hadn’t thought about spirits since I was a kid, when my mother and grandmother made their living talking to dead people. I had certainly never seen a spirit before.
I began to pick up the books the children had left on their desks. Last year, my cancer had brought me closer to the precipice of eternity than I had ever been before, and I’d spent the months since wondering about life and death. The two most important people in my life had believed that there was so much more to come when we die, but I’d never had any proof that their beliefs were anything more than wishful thinking. If anyone could have made their way back from the dead, my mother and my grandmother would surely have found a way to get back to me. If they, who were certain such things were possible, could so completely disappear, then how could the work to which they had devoted their lives be anything more than deluded fantasy?
But what had just happened in my classroom? I decided that it must have been a combination of my fuzzy post-chemo brain and the last-day-of-school commotion. I must have imagined the exchange between Charlie and the invisible presence. Perhaps our extraordinary connection as my student left was his extreme response to our parting. After all, we’d just spent the last nine months together. Either way, I had my hands full clearing out my classroom for what could be the last time.
I dropped the books on my desk and saw my cell phone blinking. It was a text from my husband, Michael. I frowned, and pressed a button on the phone so I could see his message. “We have to talk,” it read.
Talk. That was almost funny. What the hell was there left to say?